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Orb lighting being utilized in Buffalo Bayou Park (Houston, Texas)

Houston Orb

Client: Buffalo Bayou Partnership
  • Technology Development
  • System Architecture
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Electrical Engineering
  • Design for Manufacturing

A civic art installation transforming the footpaths of Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park into an illuminated, city-scale lunar calendar using thousands of individually controllable lights.

The Buffalo Bayou Partnership of Houston, Texas commissioned a public park lighting project with artist Stephen Korns, NYC-based lighting design firm L’Observatoire International, and technology development and engineering firm Cooper Perkins. Their concept was to control the lighting for the entire park, which included pathway lights, various accent lights, and under-bridge lights, in a manner synchronized with the phase of the moon. Across the park, proportional segments of lighting installations would be either white or blue, depending on the waning or waxing lunar cycle.

Construction of the renovated park infrastructure was already underway without a clear plan for how the lighting portion would be designed and implemented. In need of a quick solution to avoid delaying the wider project, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership team brought in Cooper Perkins to find a way forward.

Orbs emitting white or blue light, paired with an image of lunar phases

Orbs emit white or blue light based on location and lunar phase

Creating the desired patterns to match the moon required setting the color of each orb, individually. This challenge was further complicated by the fact that the concrete poles for each light had already been built with power wiring installed, but not signal wiring. The cost and logistics to redo the entire wiring installation were prohibitive, but without a way to control the orbs, the project was at risk of failing entirely.

A Cooper Perkins engineer with laptop, operating on an electrical box

Standard vs. encoded AC power

Without control wiring installed, we needed a viable alternative that would neither sacrifice reliability of the system nor introduce excessive ongoing costs. After exploring a variety of potential approaches, we arrived at an innovative solution: embedding control signal messages within the AC power itself. By selectively removing a whole phase of an AC cycle using off-the-shelf relays, we could send signals over miles of copper wire, resulting in a reliable, inexpensive solution to a crucial problem.

A custom control box, used to power and manage the orbs

We developed a custom control box design that could encode signals by modifying the waveform of the alternating current used to power the lights. These signals could then carry addressing information and lighting instructions across a daisy-chained network to control the color of each orb using only the power lines already installed. Operators can monitor and control the power and state of all or select park lights from a computer or mobile device through a web-enabled application.

A weather map of Houston, Texas displaying projected rain fall during Hurricane Harvey

Image Credit: National Weather Service

Houston has a challenging climate, afflicted with extreme temperatures, intense sunlight, and the threat of heavy floods like those witnessed during Hurricane Harvey.

The design of the light orbs needed to account for the severe conditions they would face when deployed along the shoreline of Buffalo Bayou, requiring fortification to withstand the heat, solar radiation, and potential water dangers.

An orb being tested with a heat lamp in an internal environment
A diagram, detailing the water-resistant orb enclosure

We engineered an enclosure completely submersible up to a depth of 20 ft, which was also able to shield the orbs from intense temperatures without the need for an active cooling system. The approach includes a custom seal, allowing for pressure release due to thermal changes, and prevented water from collecting around the seal and entering the orb when the valve was open.

Floodwaters through
Buffalo Bayou Park
during Hurricane Harvey

An animated timelapse, showcasing the orb's ability to be seen as the high water levels from Hurricane Harvey begin to lower

Overcoming these challenges required ingenuity under pressure as the project was already in full motion when we first became involved. We quickly designed solutions to several critical challenges, oversaw the manufacturing and installation of those solutions, and ensured that the project could move forward without the orbs creating a bottleneck in the city’s timeline.

The system continues to perform as designed, surviving the heavy floods that have followed its installation, and appears likely to outlive its targeted life span by decades. Following the success of this project, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership has chosen to partner with us to complete additional initiatives.

Orb lighting being utilized in Buffalo Bayou Park (Houston, Texas)